Monday, November 9, 2015

"Metatopia, will you marry me?"

Other conventions, you’re great. You really are. But Metatopia has everything I love about conventions (other designers, phenomenal panels, playtest upon playtest, and enough downtime to actually get to enjoy the company of my fellow designers) and doesn’t have the one thing that I don’t love: standing at a booth selling my game instead of playing games and talking with all sorts of awesome people. So, sorry, other conventions, but I’m going to convention-marry Metatopia. Vinny, Avie, and the rest of the crew who make it so awesome will hopefully perform the ceremony next year.


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Say yes, Metatopia. Oh God, please say yes.


For those of you who haven’t been there, here were a few of my highlights and lessons learned there. But, back off: this convention is mine now.



Highlight: Playing Panda Craves Danger & Alter Egos
It’s a game convention about testing new games, so I should talk about my favorite new game that I played, right? Devious Devices, makers of Epic Picnic, brought their game Panda Craves Danger, and it’s truly great. A group of pandas have gotten bored with their lives, so they’ve decided to see who can eat the most impressively dangerous foods. Pandas, however, are also too stupid to know what is and isn’t food, so they’re eating all kinds of different things: firecrackers, small children, barbed wire, military-grade drain cleaner, eight story tall mecha-pandas…the usual panda stuff. Each thing you eat damages you in some way, so you have to balance rushing to consume and resting to recover. There are enough interesting decisions in the game to drive meaningful play - but the theme is fantastic. And, as with all my favorite games, the theme and the mechanics mesh beautifully.


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My panda - before he ate a princess and her knight.


A close, close second was Brian Neff’s Alter Egos, a game where a group of heroes try to save the city from the invasion of evil forces - all the while having a traitor in their midst. Each player, even the traitor, has a secret hero identity with two of five skills (science, speed, strength, magic, and technology). Villains in the city require various combinations to defeat - but if the mastermind figures out who all of the players are, that’s the game - so they have to balance how much they share at the table to avoid being overrun while at the same time avoiding being discovered. It’s so fantastic that, as soon as the first game was over, I sat for the second - but I was a dummy and didn’t take any pictures of it. If you get the chance to play it at BGGCon, do. It’s great, and I know Brian will be there.


I played a bunch of other great games, too. Ian Reed’s Masters of Disguise (with whom I also had two fantastic breakfasts at my new favorite place to eat in Morristown), JR Honeycutt’s & Brian Neff’s The Island, Ben Begeal’s & Jay Treat’s Say What Again, and Cardboard Edison's (Suzanne & Chris Zinsli's) The Cobra Effect. I desperately wanted to play Between Two Stars, Matthew O’Malley’s and Ben Rossett’s sequel to one of my favorite games of the year, Between Two Cities, but time got away from me. Next time… Next time… (And If I forgot your game, it just means that I was enjoying it too much to tweet about it!)


Lesson: Iterate, iterate, then iterate.
Lots of very smart people have said lots of very smart things about why iterating in your design process is very important, so I don’t need try to convince you of that here. But, this Metatopia, I was really struck by how much better iterating has made me as a designer. In many of my previous designs, I’ve stuck with one basic idea and built everything around that, never really changing the core of the game.


This year, however, I was much, much better at trying all sorts of different things in the games I have in the early stages. For Grabass, a trick taking game I’m working on, I tried a radically different scoring system and a series of other mechanical changes that make it the same game only because the components are mostly the same. I don’t know if it’s a better way to do scoring - but I’m going to try it out.


And for Framed, a deduction/set collection/worker placement game I’m co-designing with my friend Ben Brown, this weekend, I gave myself absolute permission to try new things with the game and see if some other radical changes could improve it. And...some of them do.


Highlight: Playing a more-than-year-old design and realizing it has legs.
For giggles, I decided to dust off a party game that I co-designed with Ben Brown called Worst. Day. Ever. It’s a silly little storytelling game about reminding your buddies why each of you had an absurdly bad day during the week, and I wanted to play it with some strangers to see if it was worth taking another look at.


After a playtest went well, I played it with Matt Fantastic, Trish Loter, Jeffery Norman Bourbeau, and they loved it. Fantastic actually went as far as to say that he’s looking for games with very low component counts, but he would publish it otherwise. So, for a moment of shameless self-promotion, if anyone’s looking for a game with 108 cards, five player tokens, and player notepads, let me know...


Lesson: Listen to everyone - no matter their tone.
Metatopia is great in that it’s so focused on prototypes that the majority of the attendees are excellent designers - and the rest are players who know what they’re in for - so the feedback is usually phenomenal. Sometimes the ideas aren’t right for your game, and sometimes they’re perfect.


Over the weekend, I was playtesting one of my games (I’m being intentionally vague here - and I’m going to change a few details) in its very early stages. Of the three players, two really, really enjoyed it - but one player never got into it. During feedback, he said it was okay - but that he wanted to think about it more before he really talked about it. The next day, he approached me and asked if I had fifteen minutes because he had “solved all the issues with the game to perfection”.


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“Son, I’d like you to think about what you just said…”


My immediate thought was that anyone who would say something like that wouldn’t have much that I’d want to use, but I figured that, at least, it’d be a good story. So, I listened. I took notes. And then more notes. And while I didn’t like all of his ideas, he had some really good ones. Many were transformative, and while I haven’t had the chance to test them yet, at least three of them show definite promise, and I plan to iterate, iterate, iterate.


It’s easy to dismiss things because of a person’s tone - but don’t. At worst, you’ll have someone who feels like you valued their input, even if all you do is take notes and then forget about it. But, it’s entirely possible that you’ll get some fantastic ideas out of it. Beyond that, saying no runs the risk of seeming standoffish. Just listen for ten or fifteen minutes and see what happens. I was surprised.


Highest Light: The “Talk With Board Game Designer” panel


Dude. Beard. Glasses. 


That’s just a preview of the awesomeness since Barb and Herb of Game and a Curry are still editing the full video. But once they do, I’ll add it in. And I’ll let it mostly speak for itself. My only comment is that in a community where, let’s be honest, some interviews can be a bit pretentious, it’s really refreshing to see great designers not taking themselves seriously. Besides, any time you get to sit on a floor, hold up the applause sign for Chris “All Hail King Torg!” O’Neill, and then get free cereal, it’s a pretty good day.

So, Metatopia, I’ll be back next year for your answer - but, no matter what, my heart will be with you always. And if you haven’t gone yet, you need to. You really need to.

Doug Levandowski is a game designer who co-created Gothic Doctor, UnPub: The UnPublished Card Game, and created You're Fired (on Kickstarter from Button Shy Games November 17th). He has other designs in the works, too - because that's what designers do. When Doug's not designing, writing articles, sleeping, or playing Star Realms on his phone, he's teaching English to a bunch of amazing high schoolers. They're working on The Scarlet Letter and All Quiet on the Western Front at the time of publication. You can find him on Twitter at @levzilla and on Star Realms as DougLev, where he'd love to lose to you.